Since he burst onto the scene, fully formed, with the one-two punch Citizen Ruth (1996) and Election (1999), writer/director Alexander Payne has created a collection of wonderfully idiosyncratic comedies, populated with characters who know what they want, but don't always take the easy way getting it.
Take Jack Nicholson's irascible, traveling widower in About Schmidt, or the unfulfilled wine aficionado played by Paul Giamatti in Sideways. Or George Clooney's Hawaiian land baron, grappling with a guilty conscience in The Descendants.
Payne won an Oscar for his (co-written) screenplay on that last one.
The Omaha native (and resident) is honored by the Savannah Film Festival this week, following a screening of his latest film, Nebraska.
Bruce Dern (whose daughter Laura played the title role in Citizen Ruth, Payne's first film) will introduce Payne. In Nebraska — which was written by Bob Nelson, and directed (in black and white) by Payne — Dern plays a gruff old Montana man who makes a pilgrimage to Nebraska to collect his sweepstakes winnings.
Why did you connect with this story?
Alexander Payne: Well, it reached me because it had the title of Nebraska, and I'm kind of the go-to Nebraska fellow. Had it been called Georgia, well, dot dot dot. Beyond the title, I just liked this oddball little story, and the deadpan sense of humor. And it was a merciful 94 pages, I think. And I just thought it would make a nice little movie.
Someone such as yourself, I expect you get a lot of submissions. What's the process? Does a bell go off in your head, and you say "I'm going to do THIS one."
Alexander Payne: I await the bell. There's no process. It's as immediate as anybody else reading anything. You know, the thing is about filmmaking is that each film takes such a long time, I have to be really careful. If a feature film could be made in two months, why, I'd be the biggest sellout ever. And do all sorts of different things.
But because it takes typically about two years, from working on the screenplay, casting, securing the financing, scouting locations, shooting, editing and then having to talk about it afterwards. Like in this conversation. The story has to have some staying power. And so I have to be careful what I choose. That's why I've made only six films to date.
I just liked this one. I don't know what it is now, but I never imagined it would be any kind of grand statement, or anything beyond a nice little movie. Now, maybe it has more elements today, once it's finished, but when I was reading it I thought "Well, this is just a nice little movie." Sorry to repeat myself!
Was Bruce Dern's the face you imagined in the lead role as you read it?
Alexander Payne: While reading a script, or even writing a script, I often have that alternately vague and clear face that I might have while reading a novel, or that others might. That kind of personal casting you have in your brain.
But I think — this is years ago — when I put it down, I considered "Well, who could play this part?" And then Bruce Dern's name lept to mind. It's not to say I didn't meet tons of other actors, because I did. But I circled back around to Mr. Dern.
What are you most interested in — a sense of place, a sense of story, or is it the characters?
Alexander Payne: All of the above. In an intelligent, literate script. I guess I'm stating the obvious, but dramatic situations, told in a funny way. I don't want to limit what I do in the future, but I know, no matter what the genre is, I need a good screenplay.
Like Ride the High Country. "Well, it's just a Western!" No, it's an extremely beautiful, literate, poetic Western. The genre doesn't matter. But what I dislike about so many current American films, and for the last many, many years, is the obsessive need for the screenplays not to be intelligent. Not to be literate. Like if there's a smarter choice and a less smart choice, they choose that last one, thinking "we'll have broader appeal."
Not in all cases. There are many wonderful films all the time. But by and large, go back and watch films from the '40s, '50s, '60s, '70s, and you see a lot more interesting, literate, considered scripts.
By that token, then, how did The Descendants get made? It's very intelligent, but it's not a big ambitious film. Was that because of you? Was it because of Clooney? If what you're saying is completely true, that movie should never have been made!
Alexander Payne: There are many exceptions every year! Look at this wonderful year we have for American film this year: Spike Jonze's Her, and Twelve Years a Slave, even Gravity. I'm sure David Russell's picture will be terrific. There's always good movies being made, but I'm just talking about by and large.
Why was The Descendants made? Because I wanted to. That was the screenplay I wrote, and then I had a studio who backed me at a certain price — I mean, we have to keep these movies kinda cheap.
It was my biggest hit to date. Plus, it had Clooney.